The Late Show With Stephen Colbert premiered on Tuesday night with an extra-long edition that confirmed Colbert’s gift for being himself: enthusiastic, funny, and warm; un-ironic and certainly not his Colbert Report blowhard character.
The debut’s high point was Colbert’s interview with Jeb Bush: a substantive, frequently funny, occasionally surprising segment. I particularly liked the way Bush and Colbert dissected the Republican candidate’s campaign logo: “Jeb!” Here, Bush had the best lines: “It connotes excitement,” he said, and depending on a voter’s point of view, he noted, it suggested either “happiness or deep anger.”
The show began with a taped piece — Colbert singing the National Anthem with various citizens in various cities around America, culminating with Jon Stewart, dressed as an umpire, bellowing, “Play ball!” Colbert told a few jokes standing up and told a few more sitting down, behind his desk, many of them about Donald Trump. There were some things familiar to fans of The Colbert Report — his signature greeting, “Hello, nation!”; his Captain America shield on a shelf behind him — and some things that were probably new to many viewers, such as the sight of Colbert bopping around the stage to the music of his band (Jon Batiste and Stay Human), his hair tousled with enthusiastic effort. Jimmy Fallon made a cameo appearance via video, as Colbert pretended to interrupt his show and allowed Fallon to plug his guests for Tuesday night’s Tonight Show, a mildly gutsy move. (Fallon returned at the end, for a quick, post-credits visual joke.)
Colbert paid brief, eloquent respect to the man he’s replacing, David Letterman — and his floor manager, Biff Henderson. But you’d never see Letterman do a commercial for hummus, as Colbert did, framed as a comedy bit. Before you squawk about commercial sell-out, however, let me remind you that Colbert was merely connecting back into more distant talk-show history — that sort of thing was occasionally done by Steve Allen and Jack Paar, among others.
First guest George Clooney appeared with a nice salt-and-pepper goatee. Colbert gave him a wedding gift in a Tiffany box: a paperweight with an engraved message: “I don’t know you.” The pre-taped plug for a non-existent movie starring Clooney lasted a little too long.
The Jeb Bush interview was far more interesting. Colbert asked Bush how he’d unite the country and how his positions differed from his President-brother. The give-and-take allowed Bush to appear more spontaneous than any entertainment-show appearance he’s made thus far in his campaign.
The show culminated in a performance of “Everyday People” led by Batiste and Mavis Staples, with guest stars including Alabama Shakes’s Brittany Howard, Buddy Guy, Ben Folds, Derek Trucks, and Colbert himself, singing jubilantly.
For a premiere, this Late Show was exceedingly polished yet loose-limbed. As Colbert joked, he did have nine months to cook this one up. But in the choices he’s made, of what to keep from the Colbert Report and how much of himself to reveal to his new network audience, it seems likely that this was the first of many very good nights.
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert airs weeknights at 11:35 p.m. on CBS.